Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Bolivia and the Road to Democracy?

At Easter, in locked-down Bolivia, priests, wielding religious statues of the apostles, sprinkled holy water and blessings over four cities from air force helicopters. It reflected the religious zeal of the caretaker president and giant Bible flourishing Jeanine Áñez who had been a little-known evangelical politician from Bolivia’s tropical lowlands, Áñez was catapulted to power last November with one job: to hold new elections as soon as possible and to “rebuild democracy”.

Even critics of Evo Morales argue that Anez has instead deepened divisions in the multi-ethnic nation of 11 million people – and is using the coronavirus pandemic to further her own political ambitions. In January, Áñez declared her own candidacy for president in the forthcoming elections – a U-turn on her previous promises. She is no longer the neutral referee but has entered the electoral game with the advantage of holding the whistle. She has since postponed the polls originally scheduled for the 3rd of May, explaining that elections should wait until the worse of the COVID-19 pandemic was over. But with lockdown measures easing dramatically from 1 June, some question the rationale for postponing the electoral rerun until September or beyond. The move has fuelled denunciations of a power grab.

Last month, generals in combat uniforms barged into the senate, demanding that the MAS-majority body approve promotions awarded by the Áñez administration. Arturo Murillo, her hardline interior minister, has threatened to deploy fighter jets to the Chapare – a coca-growing region and Mas stronghold – to take on alleged narcotraffickers. A new law threatening those who “misinform or cause uncertainty” over coronavirus with up to 10 years in jail – with Murillo warning the MAS presidential candidate, Luis Arce, by name – was dropped earlier in May following international outcry.  Her administration has leaned on prosecutors to bring corruption, sedition and terrorism charges against dozens of former Morales supporters. Left-wing journalists have been harassed and detained. The Áñez administration kicked out Cuban doctors, re-established ties with Israel, abandoned regional forums, and courted Donald Trump. Her policies appear to be to restore neoliberalism under the paradigm of Latin America as the backyard of the United States.  

Áñez has been “a disappointment”, according to Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé, a Bolivian judge and former diplomat. 

“Instead of establishing a tolerant environment that guarantees free and fair elections, she decides to become a candidate, make a show of persecuting and dismantling the MAS, and govern in an opaque, abusive and openly ideological way,” he argued.

So far Bolivia has seen more than 8,000 coronavirus cases in Bolivia and 293 confirmed deaths. In the past few months, medical officials have allegedly used the pandemic to line their pockets. The health minister was arrested and fired in May after Bolivia imported 179 ventilators – which doctors later found were incompatible with intensive care units – for almost $5m, nearly three times their market price.


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